Army head coach Jeff Monken yells to his team during action against Ohio State at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, on September 16, 2017. On Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018, Monken's Army squad rolled to a 70-14 win against Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl. (Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch/TNS)

Football

Our 11th annual Top 25 countdown: No. 18 Army might throw a real wrench at the CFP

Jeff Monken has rebuilt Army into one of the top independent football programs out there. Perhaps only Michigan stands in the way of going 13-0.

Posted July 10th, 2019

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We’re 50 days away from the 2019 season opener, but it’s never too early to talk college football. We kick off our 11th annual countdown series of our preseason Top 25 as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff. Last year’s eventual CFP semifinalists ranked 1st, 2nd, 8th and 13th in our 2018 poll.

Our No. 18 team: Army

The Black Knights’ best-case scenario: Showing the form that led to an overtime loss at Oklahoma and a 70-14 win over Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl, Army throws the College Football Playoff selection committee into a tizzy with a perfect regular season.

And their worst-case scenario: Worst case? A rebuilt defense with seven new starters can’t match last season’s production, and service-academy rivals Air Force and Navy — who lost by a combined 10 points to Army last season and are familiar with slowing the Black Knight’s option attack — score enough points to pull off the upsets.

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Army didn’t crack our preseason top 25 poll last year. Heck, Army hasn’t opened a season ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 since 1959.

Inside the Black Knights

Coach: Jeff Monken (6th year, 35-28; 73-44 overall, 9 years at Georgia Southern and Army)

2018: 11-2 (beat Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl). After winning only six games in 2014 and 2015, Army has 29 wins over the last three seasons.

Returning starters: 6 offense, 4 defense

Shoes to fill: RB Darnell Woolfolk (956 yards, 14 TDs); RB Jordan Asberry (leading receiver); LB James Nachtigal (led in tackles, sacks)

Spring cleaning: While quarterback Kelvin Hopkins triggers the potent option offense, Monken and his staff wanted to find a new fullback to soften up defenses. Rashaad Bolton stepped up in the spring game, scoring two touchdowns and a physical style typical of the Knights’ option attack. … Monken kept his coaching staff almost entirely intact. And why not? The Black Knights, who had one winning season in the 17 years prior to Monken’s arrival, have had three consecutive winning campaigns and are coming off their first 11-win season in school history as well as their highest final ranking in the AP poll (No. 19) since their last unbeaten season in 1958.

Army quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. (8) tumbles into the end zone for a touchdown past Navy cornerback Jarid Ryan (2) in the first quarter of the 119th Army-Navy game at Lincoln Financial Field in South Philadelphia last December. Army won, 17-10. (Tim Tai/Philadelphia Inquirer)

Returning leaders

PASSING: Kelvin Hopkins Jr. (led team), 51-93-1,026 yards, 6 TDs, 3 INTs

RUSHING: QB Kelvin Hopkins Jr. (1st), 208-1,017-17

RECEIVING: RB Kell Walker (2nd), 11-170-1

TACKLES: LB Cole Christiansen (2nd), 77

SACKS: DL Edriece Patterson (T-3rd), 2.0

INTERCEPTIONS: DB Jaylon McClinton (2nd), 2

FYI

Big Chiefs: Nothing matters more in the world pf service-academy football than winning the Commander In Chief’s Trophy, which recognizes the top football team between Army, Navy and Air Force. The Black Knights beat both last season and won the outright trophy for the second straight time. After 14 consecutive losses to Navy, the Black Knights have now beaten their arch-rival in consecutive seasons.

Stiff-arming the competition: Can a service academy player ever win the Heisman Trophy again? Navy’s Roger Staubach last pulled off the feat in 1963, and Army’s last Heisman winner was Pete Dawkins in 1958. But Hopkins could emerge as a dark horse candidate; in 2018 he became the first player in school history to run and pass for more than 1,000 yards in the same season, and that trip to Michigan looks like the only significant hurdle until the season finale against Navy.

Saluting the locals: Not surprisingly for a service academy, Army’s long recruiting reach extends to every part of Texas. Austin is no exception; Vandegrift’s Spencer Jones, a 2018 all-Centex linebacker selection, signed with Army this past year, and the Black Nights have an offer out to current Bastrop quarterback Desmond Young. Army’s roster also includes running back Dominic Distefano from Hendrickson, defensive back Max Regan from Vandegrift, offensive lineman Holton Greenfield from Vandegrift and defensive lineman Jacob Covington from Liberty Hill.

Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins (2) is tackled by Army linebacker Cole Christiansen (54) during the first quarter at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017. Ohio State won, 38-7. (Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch/TNS)

2018 national stat rankings

Scoring: 36th (32.8 ppg)

Total offense: 76th (392.5 ypg)

Passing: 127th (80.1 ypg)

Rushing: 2nd (312.5 ypg)

Red zone offense: T-31st

Time of possession: 1st (38:33)

Scoring defense: 10th (17.7 ppg)

Total defense: 8th (295.5 ypg)

Pass defense: 21st (188.8 ypg)

Rush defense: 10th (106.8 ypg)

Red zone defense: 20th

Turnover margin: T-11th

The schedule

DATEOPPONENTLAST YR'S RESULT (IF PLAYED)
Aug. 30Rice
Sept. 7at Michigan
Sept. 14at UTSA
Sept. 21Morgan State
Oct. 5Tulane
Oct. 12at Western Kentucky
Oct. 19at Georgia State
Oct. 26San Jose StateW, 52-3
Nov. 2at Air ForceW, 17-14
Nov. 9Massachusetts
Nov. 16Virginia Military Inst.
Nov. 30at HawaiiW, 28-21
Dec. 14at NavyW, 17-10

The key game? Sept. 7, at Michigan. While games against Air Force and especially Navy always matter the most to the Army faithful, a win at the Big House in the second week of the season would immediately brand the Black Knights as a threat to crash the College Football Playoff.

The last 5 years

YearW-L/Conf.RankBowl
20144-8 / —— / —No bowl
20152-10 / —— / —No bowl
20168-5 / —— / —Heart of Dallas Bowl, W
201710-3 / —— / —Armed Forces Bowl, W
201811-2 / —— / 19thArmed Forces Bowl, W
Total35-28 / —3 bowl games (3-0)
Note: Ranks are that year’s preseason/final ranking.

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25: Stanford will need its experienced defense to lead the way early

No. 24: Can Nebraska carry its end-of-2018 momentum into 2019?

No. 23: Was 2018 a one-time thing, or is Syracuse back as a program?

No. 22: A run to last year’s Big Ten title game has Northwestern wanting more

No. 21: Mike Leach hopes Clemson’s quarterback loss is Washington State’s gain

No. 20: With no proven quarterback, Wisconsin will ride the legs of Jonathan Taylor

No. 19: With Jarrett Stidham in the NFL, Auburn must choose a freshman quarterback

No. 18: Army

Our Top 25, by conferences

3 schools:

Big Ten — No. 20 Wisconsin, No. 22 Northwestern, No. 24 Nebraska

2 schools:

Pac-12 — No. 21 Washington State, No. 25 Stanford

1 school:

Independents — No. 18 Army

SEC — No. 19 Auburn

ACC — No. 23 Syracuse

Coming tomorrow: Our No. 17 team

Want a hint?

It’s our first Big 12 team in this year’s poll.

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